Signs you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship and how to get help

abusive relationship signs
Experts say if your partner is overly jealous, this is a sign of emotional abuse. . Getty Images

The signs of physical abuse are often visible, making it easier for an outsider to spot the problem. But as emotional abuse happens beneath the surface, it can be more difficult to detect.

“Emotional abuse is usually hard because you don’t see the physical bruises on a [person’s] body,” Paulette Senior, president and CEO of the Canadian Women’s Foundation, tells Global News. “The [person] is left confused and wondering if they are doing something wrong.”

People being emotionally abused may feel like they are not good enough, or that they can’t seem to act the “right” way in a relationship. Often, Senior says, there is a belief among survivors that if you’re not physically hurt, you’re still OK.

READ MORE: How Canada’s first women’s shelter saved women and their children from abuse

What is emotional abuse?

There are a number of different actions that constitute emotional abuse, but experts agree it is the act of attempting to control someone the same way physical abuse does, Psychology Today reports.

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“The only difference is that the emotional abuser does not use physical hitting, kicking, pinching, grabbing, pushing or other physical forms of harm. Rather the perpetrator of emotional abuse uses emotion as his/her weapon of choice,” the site notes.

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Senior adds because these types of relationships are so on-and-off, instead of reaching out for help, most survivors think they can do something themselves to fix the problem. She says some can develop depression, anxiety and in worst cases, have thoughts of suicide.

Common signs

With controlling partners come controlling actions, and Senior says it can feel like someone is restricting your movement all the time. The following are common signs your partner is emotionally abusive:

And for anyone who may be wondering if someone in their life is going through an emotionally abusive relationship, Senior says there are some changes in their character and demeanour to look out for:

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READ MORE: Teen dating violence strong predictor of future domestic abuse: University of Calgary study

    • The person is more likely to cancel plans or not show up to events
    • The person becomes more quiet, distracted and shows signs of depression
    • The person can’t have day-to-day conversations anymore, over the phone or in-person
    • The person doesn’t talk about their relationship and if they do, they give the impression that everything is fine
    • The person is more likely to change how they dress (often, more conservative)
“I think it is always appropriate to step in [as a friend] by assuring [the person you suspect is in an abusive relationship] that you are there for them no matter what,” Senior says. “You should be open, nonjudgmental and listen to your friend to keep the lines of communication open and reinforce that the trust is there.”

Why some survivors don’t reach out

There are several reasons why abuse survivors will stay in these types of relationships or not reach out for help. According to long-term support organization Victims of Violence, violence is a cycle and often unpredictable.

“It is not normally consistent and can come in a variety of forms, from verbal intimidation to sexual assault. No two [people] are abused in the same manner but experts have been able to recognize a pattern which abuse tends to follow,” the site notes.

This pattern includes a tension building phase (the abuser is always angry), the acute battering phase (the abuser is violent) and the honeymoon phase (when the abuser feels guilty and promises to change).

READ MORE: Why beauty professionals are being trained to prevent domestic abuse

Other factors that contribute to a survivor staying in an abusive relationship include fear for their safety or their children’s safety, and the fact that they don’t have a place to go.

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Senior says finances also play a role, and victim shaming and self-recrimination is still way too common. (In the case of women who are sexually assaulted, many believe reporting the violence won’t result in justice.)

“A lot of [people] blame themselves and wonder how they could’ve chosen someone like this,” she says. “They become isolated and start to accept their fate.”

Worse yet, Senior says, even if the abuse isn’t physical, sometimes it can turn that way.

Where to get help

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

And while many don’t feel comfortable going to the police, Senior says there are hundreds of shelters across Canada willing to help.

“A woman doesn’t have to be physically abused to access a shelter,” Senior says. “There are also crisis lines and support lines that allow you to talk to someone anonymously.”

Here is a list of shelters across Canada that will offer a safe place to stay, counselling and referrals.